The Abilene Paradox : the Management of Agreement

Topics: Abilene paradox, Abilene, Texas, Paradoxes Pages: 38 (12136 words) Published: January 22, 2011
We present with pride the following reprint of an article from our Summer 1974 issue. If you haven’t already read this classic article on the management of agreementand the catastrophes that result when it is mismanaged-you’re in for a treat. If you have read it, you’re in for another treat: Harveys epilogue, which immediately follows the article, and commentaries by Rosabeth Moss Ranter and Arthur Elliott Carlisle, immediately following the epilogue. Together, the commentaries by Kanter and Carlisle form, in effect, an ‘Abilene Defense’Lor ways to fend off an Abilene Paradox. No actual silver stake is recommended, just some canny advice on how to maneuver to keep people fxom rushing into agreementout of politeness, a misguided sense of the “lay of the land, ” or ignoranceon something that none of them really wants to do or should do. On and off the job, we have all faced our own Abilene Paradox-several times at that. Now we have some ways to face it down.

The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Ageement
Jerry B. Harvey


5 $ 4 I 4

he July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607) was particularly hot -104 degrees as measured by the Walgreen’s Rexall Ex-Lax temperature gauge. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained West Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable - evern potentially enjoyable. There was a fan going on the back porch; there was

cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game required little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment. “Shuffle ‘em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the spots in the appropriate perspective on the table. All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday af-


ternoon in Coleman - that is, it was until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.” I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?” But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?” Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest I replied, “Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.” “Of course I want to go, ” said my mother-in-law. “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.” So into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials. Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat in front of the fan for a long time in silence. Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” No one spoke. Finally my mother-


in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.” I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean ‘you all’?” I said. “Don’t put me in the ‘you all’ group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.” My wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that .” Her father entered the conversation abruptly. “Hell!” he said. He proceeded to expand on what was already absolutely clear. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the...
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